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Independent cinema:new talents off the beaten path

WEST German film has not been flourishing lately. A few years ago it was a major force in the movie world, nourished by an inventive band of directors whose work was called Das Neue Kino, or ``the new cinema.''

But the glory of this group has diminished. Rainer Werner Fassbinder is deceased. Wim Wenders has left home to roam the world. Werner Herzog still works in his country, but openly frets about the absence of young prot'eg'es and competitors there. Among other directors, Hans-J"urgen Syberberg is too radical for mass consumption, and Wolfgang Petersen has gone Hollywood.

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When the mainstream of a national cinema seems in trouble, however, signs of life can sometimes be spotted off the beaten path -- in noncommercial, independent films by new talents. To check out this possibility, I visited the Collective for Living Cinema here and spent hours previewing ``Deutschland Now,'' a wide-ranging program of German films made since 1980. Presented in collaboration with the Goethe House of New York, it will run through Sunday.

The evidence I collected was very mixed. Clearly there is much talent and enthusiasm invested in West Germany's noncommercial film scene. But judging from what I saw, much of it suffers from a lack of artistic focus and discipline.

Striking works are being produced, to be sure. ``Flyers Shouldn't Be Afraid,'' by Rotraut Pape, is an adventurous essay in fractured narrative with a thriller-type plot. ``American Hotel,'' by Klaus Telscher, combines elegant images with an examination of film as a plastic material. ``Star of M'eli`es,'' by Dore O., is a complex exercise in cinematic nostalgia.

But this level of achievement is not reached by other filmmakers, who seem interested in little but chewing over their own dull obsessions. ``Kool Killer,'' by the pseudonymous Pola Reuth, is more arch than insightful in its critique of physical obsessions. ``Upholstered Furniture in the Open Air,'' by Noll Brinckmann, is as artsy and empty as its title. Worse yet is the ambitious and highly touted ``Love Stinks -- Pictures of Everyday Madness,'' by Birgit and Wilhelm Hein. Filmed during a six-month visit to New York, it's a willfully sour and destructive work that doesn't reveal much except the burned-out sensibility of its makers. Swiss films

Still looking for good news about a branch of European cinema, I returned to the Collective recently and spent some hours with ``Fri-Art: Made in Switzerland,'' a film program that capped a month-long festival of Swiss artistic activity in New York. And the news was indeed better. The current crop of Swiss filmmakers have a knack for finding artful variations of existing film forms.

Two highlights of the show (which was named for the city of Fribourg) were short works by Daniel Schmid, who is best known for ``La Paloma,'' a feature of international repute. ``Do All in the Dark To Save Your Master's Candles'' is a meditation on master-servant relations, and ``Notre Dame de la Croisette'' is a whimsical study of a young woman visiting a film festival. Both have such strong images and rhythms that their impact crosses the language barrier even without benefit of subtitles.

Other films I saw cover a broad spectrum of visual and technical concerns. Some examples: ``Fantomasrine,'' by Dominique Comtat of Geneva, is an invigorating essay on the human face. ``Koan,'' by Heinz Brand of Berne, explores the sound-image relationship through a rigorous study of an empty room.

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The documentary-like ``Westside Highway,'' by Andre Lehmann of Basle, captures its subject (filmed in Manhattan) with admirable economy; and the similar ``Zeil-Film,'' by Urs Breitenstein of Basle and Frankfurt, turns a street scene into a kinetic tone poem.

The influence of Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow seemed evident in some works, as did the style of American filmmaker Stan Brakhage. And those are good inspirations for any aspiring movie artist. American films

Turning to independent films from the United States, a notable recent production is ``Committed,'' by Sheila McLaughlin and Lynne Tillman. It's about Frances Farmer, the American movie actress whose life was plagued by family conflict, political controversy, and apparent mental instability.

For anyone who felt grossed out by Hollywood's version of her biography -- ``Frances,'' an appalling movie with Jessica Lange -- the modest ``Committed'' is a good although severe corrective. More concerned with themes than with storytelling, it zeroes in on hefty matters like the relationship between social and political thought and the coercive uses of psychiatry.

The performances are uneven and the visual approach is often static, but there's more intelligence at work than the commercial ``Frances'' ever dreamed of. ``Committed'' is committed, and you can feel its seriousness in every shot. It's on view at the Collective every Thursday this month.

The report isn't so good about another reputable independent filmmaker featured there recently.

Jon Jost made ``Slow Moves'' in a few days with a few thousand dollars, using a small group of actors and an improvisatory approach. The result -- about a lonely man and woman trying to make it as a couple -- is visibly sincere. It also has a couple of striking sequences, including one in a camera obscura on the San Francisco waterfront.

But the visual style is mostly limp, the characters are self-pitying, the performances are self-indulgent. And it's hard to imagine how any alert director could allow himself the lachrymose luxury of dragging out his guitar and crooning, ``You seeeeeeee what careless love has done to me!'' during the tragic denouement.

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