Video shows itself fluid and flexible

Video and film have dwelled alongside each other for several decades now.

Film is better at casting a razor-sharp picture on a larger-than-life screen, while video is more fluid and flexible to use. While some see these two media as rivals, others see them as complements, each with its own special suitability to certain tasks.

French director Jean-Luc Godard once likened film and video to Cain and Abel, but his brilliant new picture Eloge de l'amour uses both, presenting its present-day scenes in black-and-white film and its flashbacks in color-saturated video. Each lends a distinctive tone the other couldn't have achieved.

As video's prestige rises, its accomplishments are being celebrated at a number of festivals. Perhaps the most influential such event is the New York Video Festival, held each year at Lincoln Center. This year's program illustrates video's singular knack for documenting the public world and expressing personal perspectives on private experience.

A good example of this public-private mode is The Fourth Dimension, directed by Trinh T. Minh-ha, a filmmaker turning to video for the first time.

Shot in Japan, where Trinh had only limited knowledge of the customs and culture, this feature-length work explores her idea that the purpose of traveling abroad is to experience familiar things - food, clothing, architecture, entertainment, and so on - in unfamiliar ways. Trinh makes that idea an integral part of "The Fourth Dimension" by using video effects, such as color shifts and superimposed images, to help us experience video viewing in a freshly stimulating manner.

"The Fourth Dimension" is closer to an audiovisual essay than a regular movie, and so is The Cedar Bar, one of the more explosive video productions in recent memory. It was directed by Alfred Leslie, who codirected the Beat Generation classic "Pull My Daisy," and is also a respected abstract-expressionist painter.

"The Cedar Bar" revisits the complex relationship between early Abstract Expressionist artists, like Willem de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler, and powerful critics like Clement Greenberg, who both helped and hurt their public image. The video's historical information comes largely from a videotaped stage play by Leslie that pits artists against pundits in a long bull session at their favorite saloon. The work's artistic excitement comes from the rapid-fire montage of wildly eclectic images purloined from Hollywood movies, TV shows, newsreels, and other sources. Sometimes these are ripely humorous; at other times they're shocking or even pornographic. Modern art will never look quite the same.

Shorter works also make up a large part of the Lincoln Center program. Two are by Joe Gibbons, a distinctive artist who has combined 8mm-film images with video to make Confessions of a Sociopath, an ironically titled look at some of the unproductive twists his own life has taken. These include brushes with the law, addictive behavior, and a general discomfort with society's rigid rules.

The unpolished images and wobbly sound of "Confessions" ward off the dangers of self-indulgence and self-pity that such intimate material might invite if presented with Hollywood's glowing technical finesse. They also bring an undertone of mordant humor to Gibbons's sometimes unsavory tale. This quality reappears in his darkly funny Final Exit, where he discusses death with his dog.

Other items in the festival range from new videos by Peggy Ahwesh and Jennifer Montgomery, known for their studies of fantasy and sexuality, to Donigan Cumming's harrowing My Dinner with Weegee, an unsettling visit with an aging man who was once acquainted with the celebrated photographer named in the title.

The festival will also include a lecture titled "Weapons of Choice" on Monday night, hosted by critic Armond White, who has been looking at the relationship between personal expression and soulless commercialism in music videos. It's a reminder that MTV and VH1 also tap into the fun and ferment of current video art.

The New York Video Festival continues through next Thursday at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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