The title of a widely touring new film program, "White Light/White Heat: The Power of Cinema in 35mm," might puzzle moviegoers who see most of their motion-picture fare on video cassettes, laser discs, and TV tubes.
They may know that 35 mm refers to the size of standard movie film, as seen in theaters. But why make a fuss over it? If acting and storytelling are the main ingredients of cinema, don't these come across as effectively on home-video setups as on multiplex screens? What difference does the format make?
A moment's thought shows some weaknesses in this argument. For one thing, special effects obviously have more razzle-dazzle on a wide screen than on a TV set. That's why spectators are rushing off to theatrical showings of the "Star Wars" trilogy after seeing it countless times on video.
And action movies aren't the only beneficiaries of big-screen brightness and immediacy. Kenneth Branagh filmed his "Hamlet" in a superlarge 70 mm format because even the time-tested glow of 35 mm couldn't provide the vivid impact he felt Shakespeare's classic deserved. Its success could spark a new trend of oversized epics in the tradition of "Lawrence of Arabia" and "2001: A Space Odyssey," which included sheer hugeness among their many selling points. And don't forget the enormous IMAX process, drawing a steady stream of admirers to movie palaces equipped for it.
All of which shows that stories and spectacles take on added power from the larger-than-life clarity that full-size movie film provides. "White Light/White Heat" is a timely reminder of this fact. And it offers a second invaluable message, too - by presenting not a series of conventional films, but a collection of offbeat productions too innovative and original for frequent showings in full-scale 35-mm venues.
Take the irresistible item called "Trouble in the Image," for example. Produced by California filmmaker Pat O'Neill over several years - its subtitle, "Works on Film 1978-1995," indicates the time period - it's a rollicking mixture of nostalgic images, tantalizing plot fragments, and visual effects that would do a Hollywood fantasy proud. While it tells no conventional story, its energetic bits and pieces fall into an unpredictable collage that comments ironically on how the modern-day West has veered off the track fostered by feel-good frontier myths. It's fun, it's thoughtful, and it's made to order for big-screen viewing.
A very different mood pervades "Film," the only work written by Nobel Prize laureate Samuel Beckett specifically for the movies. Legendary star Buster Keaton plays an elderly man who's sunk into such loneliness that facing even himself - or the movie camera through which we look at him - has become unbearable. Beckett associate Alan Schneider directed this 1965 classic, which is ripe for rediscovery.
Still more variety emerges with "The Georgetown Loop" by New York filmmaker Ken Jacobs, who takes an ancient piece of 1890s movie footage (showing a mountainside train ride) and puts it through a series of cinematic steps - doubling it, mirroring it, inverting it. The footage is transformed from a century-old travelogue into a shimmering black-and-white kaleidoscope.
Other attractions include "Spook Sport" by Mary Ellen Bute, a colorful 1939 cartoon that surely influenced Walt Disney's beloved "Fantasia" the following year; "Vision" by Swiss filmmaker Kilian Dellers, who fills the screen with swarms of dreamlike imagery; and "Arnulf Rainer," an avant-garde masterpiece by Austrian artist Peter Kubelka that orchestrates pure white light and unalloyed white noise into a flickering extravaganza.
Additional works by Bute and the remarkable Martin Arnold round out the show, which makes a splendid argument for big-screen movies as a medium that mustn't be allowed to slip out of view.
* "White Light/White Heat" was assembled by Bruce Posner, a noted filmmaker and curator. After debuting at New York's renowned Anthology Film Archives, March 13-17, it begins a wide-ranging US tour with stops at the Roxie Cinema/San Francisco Cinematheque, March 31; Southwest Film Center/University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, April 15; Landmark Nuart Theatre/LA Filmforum, Los Angeles, April 19-20; Dartmouth Film Society/Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., May 14; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, May 15; Real Art Ways Theater, Hartford, Conn., May 17; and showings in June at the Alliance Cinema in Miami Beach; the Sarasota Film Society in Sarasota, Fla.; a venue to be announced in Orlando, Fla.; Pittsburgh Filmmakers; the Cleveland Cinematheque; the Detroit Art Institute; the Northwest Film Center in Portland, Ore.; and the Neighborhood Film Project in Philadelphia. The tour will continue through January 1999 with showings in Europe and elsewhere.