At a time when independent, noncommercial film is being shamefully ignored by just about everyone, it's good to note that such a prestigious institution as the Museum of Modern Art has just launched the 19th season of its Cineprobe series, devoted to spotlighting a kind of cinema you won't find at your neighborhood theater. For its opening attraction, the museum chose ``The Cup and the Lip,'' by Warren Sonbert, a key member of the San Francisco filmmaking community. Although he appreciates a good narrative movie as much as the next person -- with a particular yen for Alfred Hitchcock's work -- he has spent 20 years pursuing a cinema that's closer to poetry than to storytelling.
Most of his films are silent, expressing themselves through wholly visual means, and deal in atmospheres and ideas rather than plots and characters. To make his new film he traveled widely over a three-year period, hunting down real-world images that would later be compressed and distilled in a two-month editing process.
The notion that guides the picture is summed up by the old saying, ``There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip.'' Although its imagery is too dense, varied, and fast-moving to be thoroughly parsed after one viewing, the film appears to be a regretful and perhaps sardonic essay on human frailty -- and on the effort to stave off chaos by means of political and religious institutions, which carry their own dangers of social control and mental manipulation.
Disaster often shows up in the fleeting frames of ``The Cup and the Lip,'' therefore, but it's minor-league disaster -- injuries and mishaps that loom overwhelmingly large to individuals while signifying much less in the grand scheme of things. Also present are police officers and other guardians of stability (often controlling or overseeing crowds) as well as animals, scenic vistas, and day-to-day shots that vary and temper what could have been a much more unsettling film.
This material jibes comfortably with Mr. Sonbert's style, which always tends to be cool and observational rather than emotional and confrontational. Although the typically swift editing of ``The Cup and the Lip'' recalls the work of other influential filmmakers -- the edgy romanticism of Stan Brakhage and the surreal wit of Bruce Conner come readily to mind -- the prevailing tone is set by Sonbert's characteristic attitude of detached, maybe even skeptical interest in the world he travels through so speedily and observes so impulsively. ``The Cup and the Lip'' is a complex and challenging picture that will stimulate adventurous filmgoers for years to come. But like other Sonbert works, it would be more revealing if it were more profoundly engaged with its subject.
The season's first Cineprobe evening concluded with a showing of Sonbert's recent film ``A Woman's Touch,'' which treats the themes of feminism and friendship.
Cineprobe will continue on Nov. 17 with a screening of three short works by Massachusetts filmmaker Abraham Ravett. One week later, on Nov. 24, veteran New York filmmaker Jonas Mekas will show his epical diary film, ``He Stands in a Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life,'' shot over a 16-year period.
Ross McElwee of Cambridge, Mass. -- whose autobiographical ``Sherman's March'' is getting deserved attention on the art-theater circuit -- will present two of his early films on Dec. 8.
Boston filmmaker Joe Gibbons will screen his ``Living in the World, Parts I-IV'' on Dec. 15; and Danny Lyon of Clintondale, N.Y., will round out the program with two films next Jan. 12. In most cases, the filmmakers will be present to introduce their work.