Think Cinema

Avant-garde films deliver thrills at Webster University

Avant-garde film (stifle that yawn) has a bad reputation with the modern movie audience. Obtuse, nonlinear, plotless experimentation doesn't go down easy with an audience that expects beautiful people, musical cues for the appropriate emotional response and explosions on the quarter-hour. Besides, avant-garde film is always so, you know, arty and cerebral; nothing exciting ever happens, does it?

Enter Flaming Creatures (pictured), Jack Smith's infamous send-up of/homage to B-movie "star" Maria Montez, which has an all-transvestite cast and was confiscated by the New York City police in the 1960s because they deemed it obscene. Transvestite comedy too prurient for New York? If that doesn't pique your interest, well.... The centerpiece of the first installment of the Webster Film Series American Avant-garde Sampler (screening on three successive Tuesdays, April 13, 20 and 27, at 7 p.m. in the Moore Auditorium, 470 East Lockwood Avenue; 314-968-7487; $4 to $6), Flaming Creatures excellently represents the theme of the first program, "Taboo Territory."

The April 20 program, "Structuralist Cinema," features Tony Conrad's The Flicker. At the time of its release in 1966, The Flicker came with a warning that it could induce nausea, hallucinations and epileptic fits. A 30-minute cycle of the screen flickering from black to white with steadily increasing tempo, The Flicker has no characters, plot or direction; yet people who view it (well, those who don't pass out or throw up) often report seeing beautiful, dreamlike images, induced by the strobing light of the projector.

Heavenly Creatures: Jack Smith's infamous film.
Heavenly Creatures: Jack Smith's infamous film.

The final week of the series includes Michael Snow's epic Wavelength. Described by Donato Totaro as "the Citizen Kane of experimental cinema," and by Snow himself as "a continuous 45-minute zoom across a New York City loft," Wavelength does indeed focus on the action in one loft over several days. People enter, a man dies, a siren is heard in the distance; other than a rising sine-wave soundtrack, the occasional change in film stock and the passage of time, nothing happens, except for the inexorable progress of the zoom lens. It may not be an explosion, but for a discriminating audience, it's more than thrilling.

 
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