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Sweet Sixteen Films

Marcel Marceau
Sole Star: Marcel Marceau, subject of the 16mm documentary "The Art of Silence," gets his shoes cleaned during takes by an attentive filmmaker.

Geoff Alexander champions the art of 16mm moviemakers

By Richard von Busack

A SPECIAL-ED instructor in San Jose, Geoff Alexander showed his students the animated films of Norman McLaren, a Canadian artist who was one of the first to apply the principles of fine art to a medium used mostly for entertainment or commerce. Alexander quickly became a fan.

"I started borrowing the projector at night," Alexander recalls. "At the time, I lived in an apartment with a balcony; I used to set up the projector on the balcony and show his movies on the side of the building next door." What started as a private passion has blossomed into full-blown advocacy, and this week, Alexander begins a weekly series of 16mm screenings at the Agenda Lounge in San Jose.

Alexander started collecting in earnest about three years ago, when he heard that the San Jose public library was getting rid of its 16mm films and decided to purchase them.

In dumping its collection, the library was following the example of some of the larger distributors of educational films. Newer educational film goes straight to videotape, which is cheaper, although the visual quality suffers and the tapes deteriorate sooner than film. "16mm is going away," says Alexander, "and it isn't coming back."

For Alexander, 16mm films offer a rare chance to discover the art of directors who only worked in the smaller-scale medium. (Hollywood movies are almost invariably shot on 35mm.) "I'm doing primary research," he explains. "There is no extant work on some of these people."

Among the better 16mm filmmakers, according to Alexander, are Paul Saltzmann--"He did ethnographic films; his interest was in seeing how art of one generation was passed on to another"--and Gerald McDermott, a master of cut-out animation.

But Alexander's obvious favorite is John Barnes. "His work is magnificent; it's truly stellar," Alexander says with the enthusiasm of a born fan. Barnes' work "demands your concentration," Alexander says, and there's a reason, he believes, why he's been able to find so many Barnes films in good condition. Apparently, they weren't popular in classrooms because they went over the heads of high school students.

Alexander lists some of Barnes' work: Shaw Vs. Shakespeare, a debate on the character of various historical figures as seen by the two playwrights; a series on ancient Greece; a "magnificent" film on Chartres Cathedral; and a documentary on the Magna Carta.

With a large collection of animation and documentaries, Alexander felt that the only thing to do was to go public, and that's why he dreamed up "Cine 16." The free series begins on Halloween with a program on war--documentaries, animation, anthropological and educational subjects. "Every show will be eclectic," Alexander promises, "and there may not be an audience for this, but I'm hoping word of mouth will start this into a regular Thursday event. My intention is to do this forever."

Cine 16 takes plays every Thursday night at 7pm, in the cellar of the Agenda Lounge, 399 S. First St., San Jose. Admission is free.

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From the October 31-November 6, 1996 issue of Metro

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