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New York fest spotlights bold and lively avant-garde films

Every year about this time, the New York Film Festival opens a window onto an area of moviemaking that usually gets far less attention than it deserves: avant-garde film, which is less devoted to commercial storytelling than it is to poetry-like explorations of ideas, emotions, and the language of cinema itself.

Conventional wisdom holds that "experimental" works are too offbeat and exotic to gain substantial audiences.

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But this annual Lincoln Center event proves otherwise when it draws large, enthusiastic crowds to the spacious Walter Reade Theater for four diversified programs of forward-looking films.

This year's edition of "Views from the Avant-Garde" was dominated by two highly respected figures with very different sensibilities.

Robert Beavers, who presented newly refurbished versions of three superb works originally shot in the 1970s, sees film as a means of conveying "the serenity of a thought without words," as he writes in a program note.

He is also fascinated by cinema as an exquisite meeting place of aesthetics and technology. This makes him a philosophical descendant of Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance genius whose experiences inspired "From the Notebook of...," the first and most brilliant Beavers film in the program.

Interests in art and science also motivate Craig Baldwin, whose "Spectres of the Spectrum" is an exhilarating "activist science-fantasy collage." His film blends new material, clips from vintage movies, and high-energy narration into the often-hilarious tale of a telepathic woman who thinks a global catastrophe can be avoided through clues embedded in old TV signals wafting through the cosmos.

At once politically charged and wildly imaginative, this just-completed feature should make Baldwin an avant-garde superstar when it reaches other venues adventurous enough to show it.

Rounding out the Lincoln Center program were two collections of short films.

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Standouts included:

*Jurgen Reble's rhythmic "Zillertal," crafted from movie film exposed to the natural elements.

*Leslie Thornton's exuberant "Another Worldy," which set old dance footage to technopop music.

*Peter Tscherkassky's explosive "Outer Space," which reedited an old horror thriller.

*Guy Maddin's surreal "Hospital Fragment" and Phil Solomon's striking "Twilight Psalm II: Walking Distance," two contrasting memory films.

*David Gatten's expansive "Moxon's Mechanical Exercises or, The Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Art of Printing," which probed the relationship between printed words and religious tradition in the growth of Christianity.

All of which prove that avant-garde film is as lively, vital, and attention-worthy as ever, even if its natural habitat is still art centers and museums rather than multiplexes and malls. Kudos to Gavin Smith, Mark McElhatten, and Kent Jones for assembling a bold and often beautiful selection of its latest achievements.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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