Movies Outside Hollywood's Orbit

Three festivals offer superior fare, proving entertainment value of noncommercial film

When friends complain about the low quality of just about everything at their local multiplex, I remind them that superior fare is often waiting to be discovered on the nontheatrical circuit - in museums, libraries, cinema clubs, and other venues that care more about quality than box-office potential.

In my feistier moods, I deliver a full-fledged tirade on the inconsistency of moviegoers who gripe about the state of contemporary film but do nothing to support the riches available outside the commercial orbit. True, not everyone lives within easy traveling distance of such material. But it's not limited to the biggest cities, and the larger programs frequently travel to locations far from major cultural centers.

The moral of the tale: Learn what's going on by reading publications not beholden to Hollywood's ad campaigns, and keep your eyes peeled for goodies that may be coming to a nontheatrical screen near you.

Of the noncommercial film festivals unveiled in New York recently, none was more thrilling - or more passionately against the grain of mass-market salability - than "Stan Brakhage: A Retrospective, 1977-1995," recapping the recent work of an artist who's as underrecognized as he is brilliant.

From his home in Colorado, where he's lived and worked for about 40 years, Brakhage has developed a unique form of cinema dedicated to breaking the chains of conventional thought and perception, freeing the eye and mind to form new concepts of humanity and its place in the cosmos.

Organized by curator Laurence Kardish, the Museum of Modern Art show opened with "Trilogy," a 77-minute film composed entirely of hand-painted frames that fill the screen with abstract visions at once breathtakingly beautiful, rhythmically precise, and dauntingly mysterious. Brakhage's work is frequently shown in alternative-art showplaces, and pays rich dividends to those who grapple with its unconventional strategies.

Also enlivening the Museum of Modern Art this season is "Strictly Oz: A History of Australian Film," the first American look at Australian movies in their full variety. Ranging from "The Story of the Kelly Gang," produced in 1906, to "Babe," the pig-centered comedy that captivated American audiences earlier this year, the show encompasses 100 films spanning almost the entire century of cinema's existence.

Standout attractions in "Strictly Oz" include intelligent mid-1970s dramas like "Sunday Too Far Away" and "The Night the Prowler," which helped establish Australian film with American audiences; such early Peter Weir films as "The Plumber" and "The Last Wave," two chilling absurdist fables; "The Devil's Playground" and "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith," which put Fred Schepisi on the directorial map; installments in the inexplicably popular "Mad Max" series; and recent dazzlers like "Strictly Ballroom" and "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."

Yet another example of fine nontheatrical programming is this year's Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival, held at the American Museum of Natural History and slated for a US tour.

Among its major attractions is "Rouch in Reverse," a documentary about Jean Rouch, one of the world's great documentary filmmakers. In his own movies, Rouch developed the concept of "shared ethnography," whereby the "subjects" of an anthropological study become full participants in the filmmaking process. This allows everyone to avoid the pitfalls of "objectivization" and "dehumanization" that can trap unwary anthropologists. In this movie about Rouch, film scholar Manthia Diawara uses the master's own techniques to chronicle, celebrate, and critique his long and fruitful career. The results are informative, provocative, and lots of fun.

Also on view in the Mead filmfest are "Twitch and Shout" and "When Billy Broke His Head ... and Other Tales of Wonder," two movies about disabled people who reject the idea of limitation in their full and happy lives; "State of Weightlessness," a humanistic look at the Soviet space program; "The Vegetable Mob," a visit with Sicilian farmers living in Australian suburbs; "The Box," an inventive animation about aging in a big city; and "Pepper's Powwow," a lively study of a native American jazz musician.


"Strictly Oz" continues through Jan. 18 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and then travels to the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for additional public showings.

After autumn engagements at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Calif., the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival travels in January to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington; in February to the University Museum in Philadelphia; and in September to Webster University in St. Louis.

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