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'A Woman's Touch' deals in images, nuance - not plot

''When most people see conventional films,'' says Warren Sonbert, ''they have to be hit over the head to get certain points. About 55 characters have to be exploded for the idea of violence to come across. My films are different. If I lower the exposure, thatm represents violence.''

Sonbert is one of the movie poets. His films are plotless, usually silent, shorter and more compact than their distant Hollywood cousins. While some of their images are showy and even spectacular, meaning is often conveyed through nuances - small gestures, changes of pace, the slight shift from light to dark that may signify ''violence.''

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It's subtle stuff much of the time, but rarely dull or stuffy. When choosing subject matter, Sonbert plugs directly into the real world. His latest film, A Woman's Touch, is a timely look at male-female relations. The recent ''Noblesse Oblige'' deals with news events and the media that report or distort them. ''Rude Awakening'' examines work, labor, and the whole notion of ''people performing a function.''

Like other works by the San Francisco-based filmmaker, these may puzzle viewers accustomed to narrative movies. With their rapid-fire images and complex editing, they demand close observation, more like sonnets and symphonies than Hollywood epics.

Watched carefully, though, they can show traces of story and character along with the ideas and issues that are their main business. Indeed, while much of their footage is shot off-the-cuff in diverse cities and countries, some segments are staged and ''directed'' by Sonbert - who is an essayist rather than a documentarist, and loathes the ''diary film'' label sometimes stuck on his peripatetic pictures.

As with other films that favor visual exploration over storytelling, Sonbert's work rarely shows up in neighborhood theaters. It has been widely seen in noncommercial settings, however, including such prestigious places as the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Sometimes he accompanies his movies and discusses them, as he will in a Feb. 17 program at the Collective for Living Cinema here. That evening will include a lecture called ''Montage Arguments'' - about his editing strategies - and screenings of his two latest films.

What is a Sonbert movie like? ''A Woman's Touch'' exemplifies his current style. It begins with celebratory images of women, intercut with fireworks in some of the most dazzling sequences he has ever devised. Men enter the picture later, more threatening in appearance, often wearing uniforms and distanced from the camera.

Depicting many people and activities, the shots pass quickly across the screen - relating to one another in multiple ways, suggesting notions and emotions that careen off one another in kaleidoscopic patterns. No ''messages'' are thrown at the viewer, since Sonbert likes an indirect, even ambiguous approach. The bulk of the film explores various relationships between the sexes; the ending hints at a new male-female rapport.

Though his methods smack more of art than entertainment, Sonbert wants to connect with viewers as directly as possible. ''I have a great dread of boring the audience,'' he told me in a conversation at the Whitney Museum before the local premiere of ''A Woman's Touch.''

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''I'd rather keep people on their toes,'' he continued. ''I don't like films that only need one paragraph to tell what they're about or describe their technical feats. You should be constantly vigilant in your response to films. You can only do that if you're being bombarded, if a lot is coming at you.''

Sonbert certainly bombards us. In every shot of his films, the consciously chosen elements include color, exposure, where the camera is looking, whether it's moving or still, what the people are doing, how long the shot is, the rhythm of the editing, and what Sonbert calls ''directional pulls'' across the screen.

''I always like dense art,'' he says. This is obvious from his work - which might be too dense for comfort if it featured crowded sound tracks, too. But he gave up sound about 15 years ago and has made silent pictures ever since.

''I've always felt sound imposes another kind of rhythm,'' Sonbert says, ''whether it's music or frogs croaking or a babbling brook. If you go to a museum, a Vermeer or Goya has no sound. It's great for narrative films, of course, but in work like mine sound is detrimental to the breathing space of the images. It gets in the way of concentrating on the richness, texture, vibrancy, and flow of the visuals, especially if montage is heavily involved.''

For himself, Sonbert doesn't go to the movies much. ''I get most of my ideas, inspiration, and sustenance from listening to music,'' he says. ''I limit my intake of visuals. I've been burned so often by bad films.''

True, the Hollywood and European classics have influenced him, and he loves some of them dearly. But he prefers to work according to his own lights, outside the cinema establishment. One reason is the total control an independent director has - ''no backers, bankers, or producers to interfere with the films.''

And he treasures his freedom to bypass the conventions of standard movies: ''Independent film allows shortcuts that interest me far more than exposition does. Most narratives take so long setting things up, so you'll identify with the characters in a certain way. Why not skip all that and go right to the heart?''

This is a moral issue for Sonbert, who is suspicious of movies that suck viewers in with crafty exposition and magnetic characters.

''People go to films like ''Gandhi'' and ''E.T.'' to feel for the characters, '' he says. ''That's bad, because you should question your attitude toward characters all the time.'' He admires Alfred Hitchcock, who encouraged sympathy with a character, ''but held back and stayed a bit objective - so you'd look into yourself and see why you were reacting this way, and decide whether you should or not.'' It's all part of the vigilant attitude that Sonbert counsels all moviegoers to maintain.

Sonbert knows his unique brand of film isn't likely to capture a mass audience. ''My works aren't designed to be accommodating,'' he admits. ''I hope people will enjoy them, but a certain rigor is involved.'' The artist, he feels, should challenge spectators, and they in turn should ''rise to the level of the work.'' He is especially gratified when his films please viewers not normally exposed to offbeat cinema.

The next Sonbert film, tentatively called ''The Cup and the Lip,'' will probably deal with crime and religion. However it shapes up, it will represent an implicit challenge to other forms of cinema. As the filmmaker puts it, ''There are lots of ways to open people's eyes.''

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