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`Pascal's Lemma,' one of the best arguments yet for computer art

``But don't get me wrong. I hate computer art. This isn't that.'' So writes filmmaker James Benning about ``Pascal's Lemma,'' a dazzling new work that -- however he wants to label it -- is computerized to its bones.

You even watch it on a computer, starting the show by touching the ``S'' button. Running about 20 minutes, the ``programmed loop'' unfolds without further prompting or interaction, filling the monitor screen with a dense and witty series of images, charts, diagrams, numbers, and words ranging from a brief biography of Blaise Pascal to an up-to-the-minute sports report.

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Like his best film work, Benning's foray into computerland takes oddments from various corners of his imagination and experience -- he was a mathematician before turning to art -- and knits them into an unpredictable yet coherent fabric.

I'm sure Pascal had nothing like this in mind when he invented the adding machine, but the celebrated number-cruncher-turned-theologian might have appreciated Benning's refusal to content himself with mere logic or mere conjecture, preferring an intuitive blend of the two.

Pascal and his philosophy have a way of turning up on screen every now and then, in such diverse contexts as the romantic ``My Night at Maude's'' and Roberto Rossellini's full-scale movie on his life. But surely he has never been treated with a more dapper blend of respect and irreverence than Benning gives him here.

``Pascal's Lemma,'' which I caught at the Kitchen in New York, is one of the best arguments yet for computer art.

A few more like this, and Benning himself might stop hating the stuff.

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