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Experimental films show signs of a creative stirring

Hollywood isn't the only branch of moviedom to be in a creative slump lately. It's been hard to find excitement in the world of ``experimental'' film, too. Like their commercial cousins, the explorers of new visual and cinematic forms are in a holding pattern -- ready to strike out in new directions but not sure where the next breakthrough lies. There are signs, however, that film artists are stirring again -- pushing beyond familiar avant-garde strategies to make new technical and imaginative progress. I found at least three promising trends in the recent 1985 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where I attended all the film-related programs:

A new appreciation of narrative, used ironically but no longer mocked as a vulgar Hollywood leftover.

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A new delight in the sensory pleasures of film, giving us works that aren't just structurally and theoretically sound, but also gorgeous to look at.

A new attempt to break the mechanical limitations of film, using novel methods of photography and projection to achieve unusual effects.

None of these developments resulted in a masterpiece at the Whitney Museum, which gamely tried to sum up the best and brightest in recent noncommercial film. Added up, however, they point to a new vigor and adventurousness in this undervalued area of the cinema scene.

For movie fans who like Hollywood and find ``abstract'' films a bore, the most pleasing trend may be the storytelling angle that showed up strongly in the Whitney show. The very first selection, ``Born in Flames,'' by Lizzie Borden, used narrative tactics while taking satirical jabs at documentary and propaganda forms. Using staged interviews and faked cin'ema v'erit'e footage, it gives us a sardonic tour of American society in the near future, after a socialist-feminist revolution has give n it a strange but oddly recognizable new shape. Borden artfully combines social and political commentary with story elements, character development, and enough ideological savvy to poke intelligent fun at dogmas of every stripe.

Narrative also plays a part in ``The Communists Are Comfortable and 3 Other Stories,'' by Ken Kobland, although here the mood is more allusive and even dreamlike. The brief ``stories'' probe working-class life, middle-class art, and old-line politics through resonant images and phrases, mingling a government hearing and vintage rock-and-roll with dour monologues and nostalgic visits to obscure places. Filmed and acted with insinuating skill, it invites analysis but operates most powerfully on a visionar y level, transforming ideas and emotions into a haunting reverie on childhood and its reverberating memories.

``Committed,'' a drama by Sheila McLaughlin and Lynne Tillman, tells a story with a strong anti-Hollywood slant. Based on the unstable life of actress Frances Farmer, it traces events and characters that showed up in the commercial movie ``Frances'' not long ago. Here the filmmakers stress political and feminist implications, though, rather than psychological and melodramatic truisms. The result is less neatly packaged, and truer to its troubling subject, than its commercial counterpart.

The trend toward unabashed beauty isn't new on the ``experimental'' film scene, but it seems to be picking up steam lately. Current music has its ``new romanticism'' and ``minimalism'' as feel-good antidotes to highly cerebral styles; and filmmakers too are reacting against the rigor and austerity of ``structural'' cinema that was recently all the rage.

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Thus the lavish ``Rushlight,'' by Holly Fisher, turns a trip through Rumania into a glowing tapestry of color and shape, while Peter Hutton's black-and-white ``New York Portrait, Part II'' conveys a sense of dramatic immediacy through a series of impeccably framed cityscapes. ``A Woman's Touch'' is Warren Sonbert's eye-dazzling meditation on feminism and femininity. ``Standard Gauge'' is Morgan Fisher's charming excursion into movie history, blending spare ``structuralist'' images with a lively narratio n reflecting the filmmaker's deep affection for his art.

The most exciting new film trend, in my view, is the growing alertness to fresh technical possibilities. There was no more imposing work at the Whitney than ``Making Light of History: The Philippines Adventure,'' by Ken Jacobs, who has been straining at the boundaries of cinema for years. The images come from two reels of documentary-style film, projected from interlocked machines (called a ``nervous system'') controlled by Jacobs himself. Alternating the projectors at high speed and manipulating their light with a rotating mask, he creates 3-D and stop-motion effects unlike any others. There's a touch of the mad scientist to this method, but its visual originality suits Jacobs's deeply questioning attitude toward social and political assumptions.

Uncommon means are also employed in ``What Is the Use of a Violent Kind of Delightfulness if There Is No Pleasure in Not Getting Tired of It,'' partly inspired by Gertrude Stein's writing. It's the work of gifted cartoonist Sandy Moore, who controls the speed of the images with her feet (using bicycle pedals) while aiming them at multiple screens with her hands. Neil Tolnick provided a live musical accompaniment to this ``performance with film'' at the Whitney.

In a separate but related trend, two artists chose not film but slides as their medium: Nan Goldin in her scathing essay on emotional relationships, ``The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,'' and Perry Hoberman in his amusing 3-D romp, ``Out of the Picture (Return of the Invisible Man).''

Not every Whitney work made a strong impresion on me. Disappointments include two Jane Aaron films, ``Traveling Light'' and ``Remains To Be Seen,'' and the pixilated ``Sticks on the Move,'' by Pooh Kaye and Elisabeth Ross. ``Trial Balloons'' is a surprisingly unmemorable work by the talented animator Robert Breer, and ``Luck in Loose Plaster'' didn't live up to Sandy Moore's high standard. ``Natural Selection'' was less impressive than earlier work by Larry Gottheim, and Douglas Davis's spoof (``P sycho Mein Amour'') was simply silly.

But the series more than justified itself by serving notice that ``experimental'' film just might be on the move again. All the Whitney selections, except for the performance works, can now be seen in a widely touring exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts. Over the next three years it (and a companion video series) is expected to reach some 35 locations in the United States and elsewhere. Visits in 1985 range from Boston and Los Angeles to Stockholm and Melbourne.

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