Handcrafted Movies Ignite the Imagination
Series broadens audience for contemporary, experimental cinema
NEW YORK — Most moviegoers think of cinema as a cumbersome, high-tech medium that groans under the weight of heavy equipment, bustling crews, and high-rolling budgets.
True enough, if one doesn't look further than commercial pictures at the local multiplex. But there's another side to the cinematic universe where movie-making couldn't be more personal, subjective, even intimate in both its methods and results.
This is the realm of avant-garde or ''experimental'' film. And within this realm, perhaps the most individualistic area of all is that of handcrafted movies, created by artists who work in direct contact with the stuff of cinema itself.
Since such films are usually ''abstract'' works without conventional story lines, they're generally shown in specialized venues such as museums and libraries.
In a commendable effort to broaden their audience, filmmaker and curator Bruce Posner has organized a program called ''Spirit Stream Storm: 35mm Prints of Hand-Crafted Artists' Films,'' comprising 15 short movies and three musical interludes from a variety of countries. It's an energetic, exuberant, and sometimes deliciously exciting show.
One point clearly illustrated by ''Spirit Stream Storm'' is how many different things an imaginative artist can do with a simple strip of celluloid. Stan Brakhage scratches it, paints on it, and glues bits of vegetation to it, sometimes using oversized IMAX strips to hold his expansive visions.
Kurt Kren cranks contemporary film through a silent-movie camera. Charles and Ray Eames photograph 17th-century engravings. Thierry Vincens uses music as his point of departure. Posner takes superimposed pictures with a snapshot camera and runs them sideways through a projector.
Etching, batiking, and cut-and-paste techniques also figure in the program.
Nearly all the films were devised one frame at a time -- a tad slower than the 24-per-second rate of standard cinematography, but just right if meticulous detail is part of your aesthetic.
Since the films of ''Spirit Stream Storm'' are projected at the usual speed of 24 frames per second, can the viewer's eye detect and grasp -- much less understand and savor -- the rush of images they shower onto the screen?
Multifaceted works like Brakhage's cascading ''Interpolations I-V'' and Posner's careening ''Sappho and Jerry: Parts I, II & III'' obviously call for more than a single viewing before one can understand their structures or decode their deeper meanings.
Yet even a first encounter affords much enjoyment in purely sensuous terms: Cinema's most basic ingredients -- form, movement, color -- take on a dignity and importance they're rarely allowed in ordinary films, where story development has precedence over everything else.
Some of the works in ''Spirit Stream Storm'' advance at a measured pace, moreover, allowing time to contemplate them as they unfold.
Jose Antonio Sistiaga's vivid ''Impressions From the Upper Atmosphere'' combines fast-moving shimmer with slow-moving iconography to produce a sort of high-strung meditative state.
Sergei Paradjanov's elegant ''Confession'' proceeds with the stately composure of an Old World ritual.
The works in ''Spirit Stream Storm'' are not of unfailingly high quality; the Paradjanov film, for instance, taken from an unfinished project, seems included more as a tribute to the late filmmaker than a compelling example of handcrafted cinematics.
Still, the show provides a lively overview of a field that deserves far more attention from a far wider range of moviegoers.
Posner has assembled the program with loving care, and while he hasn't resisted the temptation to close it with his own magnum opus, I'm happy to report that his ''The Analects'' is as invigorating as it is dizzying, challenging the eye and mind with a barrage of life-affirming images.