No form of expression can stay healthy without a flock of avant-garde gadflies nipping away at formulas, stereotypes, and lazy habits.
This goes for movies as well as other arts. "Experimental" filmmakers haven't gained the visibility or profitability of their Hollywood cousins, but their work has influenced commercial directors as different as Woody Allen and Oliver Stone, not to mention an entire generation of MTV postmodernists.
Now more recognition is coming their way. In a newsmaking event, this fall's New York Film Festival presented four full-length programs of "Views From the Avant-Garde," celebrating the vigorous achievements emerging from this field.
The best works challenged the notion that movies must anchor themselves to storytelling. And they reminded large, enthusiastic audiences that adventurous filmmaking can break through patterns and teach us new, uplifting ways of looking at our world.
Drawing so much attention at such an influential event, they may have sparked a new wave of recognition - leading to heightened visibility in theaters, museums, and other venues - for their offbeat breed.
The most famous name on the program was probably Stan Brakhage, a filmmaker who believes that both human wisdom and spiritual enlightenment are best sought through poetic images that imitate the mercurial flow of creative thought. His beautiful new film, "Yggdrasill Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind," uses Nordic mythology about "the world tree" to suggest that humanity, nature, and the cosmos are rooted in a single transcendent reality.
Other avant-garde superstars in the series were the late Gregory J. Markopoulos and his associate Robert Beavers, who is seeking to realize Markopoulos's dream of a Temenos Foundation devoted to sharing and preserving their visually exquisite films. Beavers presented three movies shot in Greece, blending architecture and nature into a vibrant, rhythmic continuum.
Markopoulos's masterpiece, "Twice a Man," starring Olympia Dukakis, was then shown in a freshly edited version that nestles its eccentrically portrayed characters - city folks haunted by memory and thirsting for love - within stretches of darkness meant to have a soothing, even healing effect.
Also on the program were a diary film by legendary photographer Robert Frank, a nostalgic romp by Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky, and a long list of others - some by young filmmakers such as Lewis Klahr, whose brilliant "Pony Glass" builds poignancy and hilarity from comic-book pictures and richly unpredictable music.
Offering more signs of vitality on the avant-garde scene, other experimental movies were shown in "mainstream" portions of the festival. These included the bittersweet "Whiplash," assembled by Jeff Scher from Warren Sonbert's joltingly intense images, and the feature-length "Mother and Son," a painterly meditation on family devotion by Russian director Alexander Sokurov, due in theaters early next year.
* Texts, notes, and photographs related to Markopoulos's films are on view at the Foundation for Hellenic Culture in New York through Dec. 14, and next year the Louvre in Paris will present a Markopoulos retrospective. Brakhage's next major show will be a three-part program at New York's Millenium Film Workshop, Nov. 21-23.