The Best of Independent Films Are There If You Look for Them

AS the usual crop of Thanksgiving and Christmas movies position themselves for maximum impact on multiplexes everywhere, it's good to know that independent filmmakers are also busily at work - producing movies that are independent not only of Hollywood but, at their best, of all the habits and reflexes that predictably crop up in commercially minded projects. While such pictures aren't likely to appear in neighborhood theaters, the more distinguished examples have a chance at visibility - and even popularity - in museums, libraries, arts centers, and movie clubs. One active supporter of independent cinema, the Museum of Modern Art here, recently launched the 23rd annual season of its Cineprobe series, devoted to a wide range of experimental and avant-garde films. Many of them will continue bouncing around the nontheatrical circuit for months to come.

No movie in the current season is more likely to delight audiences than ``Friendly Witness,'' the latest and greatest work by Warren Sonbert, a gifted San Francisco filmmaker. On its face, ``Friendly Witness'' is as avant-garde as they come, offering no story, characters, or dialogue, but a generous flood of images linked by qualities of form, color, texture, and movement. What brings the film alive - and makes it a sure-fire treat for everyday moviegoers as well as experimentalists - is the richness, variety, and ingenuity of the visual feast it serves.

Adding to the film's extraordinary power is a superbly crafted music track (rare for Mr. Sonbert, whose movies are usually silent) that begins with a potpourri of rock-and-roll classics before shifting to a Christoph Gluck score that lends added weight and depth to the film's somewhat darker second half. The result is an extraordinarily captivating work that consolidates Sonbert's deserved reputation as one of today's most visually astute observers of the mercurial moods, atmospheres, and emotions that characterize the modern world.

Expansive cinema isn't the only kind, of course. More claustrophobic feelings course through ``Begotten,'' by New Jersey artist Elias Merhige, which was screened early in the current Cineprobe season. There is a narrative thread in this work, although it's a minimal one: What appear to be a mother and son travel through a difficult landscape where disaster and destruction have desolated the terrain and everyone in it. The film has been described in terms of documentary and German expressionist drama, but to my eyes it most strongly recalls the work of Samuel Beckett, whose stark novel ``How It Is'' can be considered a precursor to Mr. Merhige's dark and sometimes devastating vision. Shot in grainy black-and-white on 16mm film, and then put through a multiple ``solarization'' process to bring out astonishing new relationships between shades of black, white, and grey, ``Begotten'' is entrancing, obsessive, disturbing, and probably indelible.

For an extreme contrast, Cineprobe ends its season Jan. 28 with San Francisco filmmaker Jerry Barrish presenting his ``Shuttlecock,'' a movie with a fairly conventional story. It focuses on four characters: a painter and a German cabaret entertainer on one side of the plot, a standup comedian and his ``exotic dancer'' wife on the other. The setting is California, and so are the moods, the preoccupations, and the lingo of the film - to the point where it's hard to tell if Mr. Barrish is celebrating or satirizing the state he lives in. The answer is probably some of each, but the movie drenches its audience so relentlessly in West Coast trendiness that I felt soggy long before the end. On the same Cineprobe program is ``Recent Sorrows,'' another Barrish production.

Cineprobe is programmed by Laurence Kardish, Adrienne Mancia, and Jytte Jensen, all of the museum's staff. Also on this season's slate are films by Stacey Steers of Colorado; Emily Hubley of New Jersey; Liza Bear and Sharon Greytak of New York; and Fred Marx of Illinois.

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