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A disappointment from the gifted director of `Tex'

The hero of ``Sylvester'' is a horse named after Sylvester Stallone. And that's only the beginning of this movie's problems. The plot is contrived. The characters are stale. The dialogue dishes out howlers like ``When she talked about you there was magic in that dirty little trailer. . . .''

The flatness of ``Sylvester'' is doubly disappointing since it comes from director Tim Hunter, whose clear intelligence worked wonders with ``Tex'' a couple of years ago. This time he doesn't transcend his material. He falls into every trap -- handling the most coy and clumsy moments with earnest zeal, when a touch of irony might have smoothed the way, if not saved the day.

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Melissa Gilbert, who has real promise as a movie actress, plays a tomboy with a gift for training horses. In a typical twist, she also happens to be an orphan with young brothers to raise. And there's a social worker just itching to put the siblings in a ``home'' if she slips up just once.

Her dream is to ride the handsome Sylvester to first place in a competition, then sell him and use the profits to set up a decent household for her brood. Help comes from a ranch owner played by Richard Farnsworth with his usual craggy expression, syrupy voice, and likable manner.

The screenplay makes one or two tentative moves away from the sentimental gambits found in most horse movies. For instance, it's a switch for the heroine to dream of selling her equine pal for much-needed cash, not spending her days loyally filling his feed bag.

But most of the film is as mushy as it is predictable. And it doesn't help when Hunter stops the story altogether to show us videotapes of equine accidents -- a feeble maneuver that adds neither suspense nor color, although the film badly needs both.

Looking to the bright side, it's sure that ``Sylvester'' won't be the end of the trail for the director or his stars, who have much more to offer than this picture shows. Given a more original premise and a stronger script, greener pastures clearly await them.

Film gives a sharper image. But videotape has an edge in practical terms: It's fast, flexible, and inexpensive. Hence video is a more accessible medium than its celluloid cousin. It's even a more democratic medium, some observers say -- allowing a wide range of visual artists to comment on new wrinkles in the social fabric with a speed and immediacy not available any other way.

This view underlies a new video series put together by the American Federation of Arts (AFA) and slated to tour widely. Its title is ``Revising Romance: New Feminist Video.'' Its aim is to present fresh perspectives on love, sex, and family -- subjects that are encrusted with dubious notions after decades of male-dominated media treatment.

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At a recent preview of the series, sponsored by AFA, I found an energetic but uneven assortment of tapes. Democracy is not necessarily a virtue in the arts -- the whole point of being an artist is having a special vision -- and video encourages bold experiments by directors who aren't deft enough to keep them under control. Enthusiasm rather than excellence is the mark of some ``Revising Romance'' offerings.

In its bitterest form, this view erupts into the scathing ``Mother'' by John Knoop and Sharon Hennessey, about a woman who kills her nasty husband and then gets friendly with a policeman who's a pervert and blackmailer. In a gentler form, it adds spice to Ilene Segalove's ironic ``Why I Got Into TV and Other Stories,'' a softspoken look at media manipulation of young lives.

There's a lot of rage among women artists, noted one of the curators who selected the ``Revising Romance'' program, and you can see it in the absence of happy endings, neat resolutions, or sentimental strolls into the sunset. For such artists, video doesn't just provide another medium -- it provides an outlet for years of repressed anger and thwarted creativity.

Once the pressure of that build-up has been relieved, the feminist video scene may calm down a bit. It may also develop a stronger artistic presence as its practitioners become more sure of themselves and their medium.

The complete ``Revising Romance'' consists of four programs called ``Domestic Drama,'' ``Revisionist Romance,'' ``The Double Bind,'' and ``Video Picaresque.'' It was assembled by Podheiser and Bob Riley of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, in association with the AFA. It can be seen through March 30 at the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Other engagements this month include Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., and the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, N.Y. Future engagements will take place in April at Columbus, Ohio; in July at Portland, Oregon; in September at Ithaca, N.Y.; and in March 1986 at San Francisco. More playdates will follow in what is expected to be an extensive American and overseas tour under AFA auspices.

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